Solid stealth action surrounded by a dumb yet well meaning story.
A very controversial topic in video games is that of interactivity versus cinematics. While many believe them to be necessary tools in telling a video game story, many others feel that their overuse detracts from the interactivity that makes video games unique. Understandably, a narrative-focused game has to find a delicate balance between gameplay and cutscene to address both concerns. Oddly enough, though, the (relatively) recent 3DS remake of Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater seems to occupy both extremes simultaneously. It is almost like two separate games entirely: at one end is a solidly built stealth game, and on the other is a thought out espionage action film with very noticeable flaws.
One of these flaws is how insistent and preachy the narrative can feel, at times. It is anything but ambiguous about its themes: there are no absolute enemies and nuclear warfare is a looming threat upon mankind. These are both statements the game tells you almost verbatim in the first outings, and it does not let up over the many cutscenes spread throughout the game. This is not to say that the messages are worthless or done poorly. The amount of history/weapons/etc. research put in the story at least gives the impression that the writers are approaching the discussion with a level head, and both major themes manage to worm their way surprisingly well into every aspect of the narrative, from the lumbering Shagohod to the betrayal and political intrigue littering the story.
Yet even for those not willing to endure prolonged history lectures about the Cold War, Snake Eater maintains a level of appeal. For instance, the occasional fight scenes are incredibly well choreographed, their frantic nature making it very easy to be sucked into the action. However, most of this appeal takes the form of utter stupidity, which were likely included to balance out the dryer exposition and backstory. Unfortunately, this balance often straddles the line between humorous and just plain annoying. On the one hand, a single tumbleweed rolling through a scene, as if to comment on how this spy thriller has inexplicably become a spaghetti western, demonstrates an endearing amount of self-awareness. On the other hand, a major villain summoning his cohorts with a literal catcall is needlessly idiotic. While the aforementioned self-conscious nature of the game make it clear that the writers knew how dumb such moments could be, it is difficult to figure out if this makes said stupidity better or worse than if these efforts were sincere.
This is partly because it inevitably breeds a cast of mediocre characters. While there are some genuinely good characters, they are generally not the most important ones; the characters with the most narrative focus are the ones with some major issue or fault, and not in the way the writers likely intended. This is easily noticeable on gender lines. There are only a handful of female characters in the game, and unfortunately, they both occupy very obvious gender stereotypes. EVA, for instance, while certainly a competent spy and incredibly important to the story, is still defined almost entirely through her sexual appeal. She introduces herself by flashing her cleavage, and it only gets more overbearing from there. The Boss, the only other female character to appear in the story (not counting Para-Medic, since she only makes a physical appearance at the end of the game), does not fare much better. Her role in the plot can best be summed up as “team mother”, generally taking on the mission’s responsibility while the other two major villains bicker like children. It’s easy to feel sorry for her, but not for any reason the writers intended.
Contrast this with Revolver Ocelot, the cocky comedy relief villain who is more irritating than endearing. Half of the time he is on screen, Ocelot is behaving like an irrational teenager: easily provoked, overly willing to display his power, and prone to rash decisions. The rest of the time, however, he is simply doing stupid things, such as juggling guns or meowing. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so annoying if he was swept aside to a less influential role in the plot, but since he is likely the one villain with the most screen time, his status as a poor character is thoroughly cemented. The worst part about this is that Ocelot’s mediocre characterization damns the other villains to a similar fate. The Boss would likely be less of a mother figure if not for Ocelot’s constant shenanigans; Volgin simply feels like Ocelot taken to cartoonish extremes; and while it was never easy to take the mooks or minor villains seriously in the first place, Ocelot killing them off for no discernable reason simply makes this difficult task even more difficult.
Not even Naked Snake, the protagonist, can be taken seriously. However, while the fault with the other characters largely lies with their writing, Snake’s voice actor is more to blame here. (This is especially odd when one realizes how great the rest of the voice acting is.) While David Hayter’s deadpan delivery of Snake’s lines can lead to some humorous moments (such as his delight over a simple gun), it can just as often make certain moments hard to take seriously. This includes minor parts of the story, like the introductory cutscenes were Snake merely mimics what other people say without adding anything to the conversation, to major elements of the story. Much of the story deals with Snake’s moral dilemma of having to kill his mentor, The Boss. Although an important part of the narrative and successful from a pure writing perspective, Hayter’s enunciation dictates how the player will receive this subplot. This means that his emotionless delivery removes any pathos this aspect of the story should logically elicit.
Something similar happens when the gameplay is compared against the narrative. While the gameplay suggests handling every problem by sneaking around it, the story suggests differently. True, several cutscenes depict the protagonist sneaking his way around, but there are quite a few instances of him more or less wrestling his way past many guards. This begs the question of why he has to make himself unnoticed when he can slap his way through any problem that faces him. The only difference here is that since the stealth systems set the stage, the dissonance has less of an impact on the experience than it would otherwise.
In fact, perhaps the game’s only unconditional strength is its stealth gameplay. For the most part, you are not well equipped to handle enemies with a strict action approach; you will never have enough ammo, and the enemies will always outnumber you. This only leaves the option of slowly sneaking your way past them, which is a significantly better option than shooting your way through the game. There is a clear strategic element to waiting in the shadows for the perfect moment to move forward, and getting through an area without being discovered grants a very strong sense of power and success. Part of what makes this so gratifying is how fair a challenge Snake Eater presents. While you start with a tranquilizer gun with a silencer equipped, this is hardly a game breaker. Using it without exposing yourself to enemies requires careful strategy, such as scouting for enemies or aiming for the head and heart for the quickest inoculation. This, along with persistence between areas (IE running to another area does not reset the alert phase or the enemy count), reinforces the tactical element to Snake Eater instead of negating it.
The only significant flaw to be found is what happens when you are discovered. Enemies will pursue you to a degree. Hiding in tall grass almost never works, no matter how well camouflaged you are, but hiding in a small alcove almost always does. Enemies rarely, if ever, check these areas, essentially turning them into automatic safe zones. This could potentially render skill an irrelevant factor, since it is very possible to bumble your way through any given environment, getting by simply on luck. However, any problems with escaping enemy detection require one to be detected in the first place, largely rendering the discussion a moot one.
Other systems, while certainly by no means bad, do not hit the same highs that the main systems do. At best, they are nearly as good as the stealth. This is best demonstrated in the game’s few boss battles. Some (especially the early fights) manage to be fun in spite of going against what the game is about. They completely lack any stealth elements, but their frantic, action-packed nature still manages to be enjoyable. Later fights in the middle of the game manage to retain these elements while reintroducing stealth into the mix, allowing for the best of both worlds. At their worst, the side systems are innocuous. For instance, Snake must continually eat over the course of the game to maintain his stamina, lest his effectiveness in combat wane. (This is despite the fact that the main events of the game take place over the course of only a few days, confusingly enough.) While this may sound like a nagging gameplay element, hunting animals in the Russian wilderness serves as an entertaining distraction from the game proper, with Hayter’s humorous reactions to the food serving as the cherry on top. If anything, medical and inventory concerns are a greater worry, since the confusing control scheme and menu navigation transform these into occasional nuisances.
It is important to note, though, that these may be flaws inherent to the 3DS design, as the control layout makes it difficult to switch between menu navigation and environmental navigation. Another system-exclusive flaw is the use of 3D; while well done on its own, certain moments, such as an early cigar fling, feel like superfluous pandering to the player. This is especially strange when one considers how strong the visual design in general is for Snake Eater. The choreography, for example, is nothing short of fantastic. While often brief, their quick nature creates powerful tension and a sense of action, making them incredibly fun to watch. Yet this does not only apply to the fight scenes, as ignoring the aforementioned voice acting quibbles, the characters emote as well as they fight. Part of this is because the models themselves are crafted realistically enough to allow the room necessary for this level of emotion. Simply put, though, Snake Eater looks superb.
Of course, this must be weighed against everything else that makes up Snake Eater. For every legitimate selling point it puts forward, an undeniable flaw demands your attention before you give the game a chance. In the end, it is important to know what you are getting into regarding Snake Eater: if you are willing to put up with a story that’s pretentious in some areas and grating in others, you will find underneath that a rewarding stealth game with several worthwhile themes and boss fights spread over the course of about ten to fifteen hours.